William A. Fowler’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1983
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, My Fellow Students, Ladies and Gentlemen,
You will note that my salutation includes my fellow students. Yes I am still a student. I even learned something from Professors Chandrasekhar and Taube two days ago. I came to Caltech as a new graduate student fifty years ago and I am now known as the oldest graduate student at Caltech. It’s nice to have a nickname like Willy: one doesn’t have to grow up. It is the great glory of the quest for human knowledge that, while making some small contribution to that quest, we can also continue to learn and to take pleasure in learning. Fellow students, there will be hard work and heart break in your futures but there will also be stimulating intellectual pleasure and joy. In less pompous language I call it fun.
This happy occasion includes some sadness for me. My darling wife, Ardiane, is unable to be with me. She has shared my trials and tribulations and my minor triumphs – what a pity she cannot share this supreme moment with me. Our daughters, Mary and Martha, we call them our biblical characters, are with me. For them, Ardie is a caring mother, for me she is a loving wife.
I am told that Nobel Laureates soon come to be considered experts in all fields. It won’t happen to me and to prove it I’ll tell an old apocryphal story of mine which shows my feelings about so-called experts. I think it is fair to say we all look up to medical doctors as experts. Well, more or less. When you are ill you go to your doctor, he diagnoses your problem, prescribes treatment and you do what he tells you – he is the expert.
Anyhow, a few years ago I sprained my left wrist while on a trip away from home. I went to a doctor recommended by a friend. He took X-rays, found no broken bones, gave me some pain-killer and dismissed me. But as I was leaving his office he said, “I want you to bathe that wrist in hot water three times a day.” I was flabbergasted! “Doctor,” I said, “What do you mean? My mother told me always to bathe a sprain in ice water.” “Well, your mother was wrong,” he replied, “my mother told me to bathe a sprain in hot water.” So much for experts!
My work is my life. For the first thirty years of my career I was an experimentalist. For the last twenty years I have been trying to analyze in the simplest possible theoretical way what I was doing in the laboratory and what others continue to do in laboratories around the world. For me it is still a source of amazement that we can duplicate in the laboratory in a small way what goes on in the sun and other stars.
In regard to the many problems facing mankind at the present time I feel that there are two major ones of equal importance – overpopulation and the nuclear arms race. I have no expert competence in regard to the solution of either of these problems but as a concerned human being I support with equal fervor a population freeze and a nuclear freeze. This is not the appropriate time to elaborate on these devastating problems.
I have many friends in Sweden and it is a pleasure to be reunited with them if only for a short time. For that and for the honor accorded to me I am indebted to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and, for making our visit so pleasant, to the Nobel Foundation and Britta Andreen. I accept with great joy my share of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics. Thank you.